“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” So David writes in Psalm 133. Jesus also addresses unity in his prayer in John 17, often called his “high priestly prayer.” Likewise, Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church deals extensively with the question of the church and its unity.
But as we know, unity can be elusive. Certainly in our families, definitely in society, and unfortunately in the church. The church seems anything but united, particularly in our corner of the world. In college, I took a course entitled “American Christianity.” The course boiled down to learning about Christian denominations and their origins. A more accurate title for the course could have been, “A Survey of the Divisions in American Christianity.”
When we look at the trees of Christian denominations, we can lose sight of the forest that is Christianity and become cynical and hopeless. But we can take heart. The unity of the Christian church is not based on anything you or I could do. It is based on God’s work to unite us to himself.
When we look at the trees of Christian denominations, we can lose sight of the forest that is Christianity and become cynical and hopeless. But we can take heart.
One truth that can calm our cynicism and give us hope is that it is God’s will to unite us to himself. Paul writes to the Ephesians, “he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Eph 1:4).
He also writes, “In him you were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph 1:11). God created humanity with the purpose of being united in a relationship with him, holy and blameless in his sight. But we separated ourselves from him and in the process, put a wedge between each of our fellow humans.
Despite our sinful dissolution of that relationship, God still intends for us to live together with him. Jesus opens his prayer by telling the Father, “the hour has come” (John 17:1). What hour has come? The hour God had planned to take place since humanity’s fall out of its relationship with God.
Here, and throughout John’s gospel, Jesus frequently refers to this hour as his glorification. To glorify something is not just to praise it. It is to lift it up before others and illuminate it for all to see. God reveals his will that we would once again be united to him and illuminates it for all to see in Jesus being lifted up on the cross and raised from dead. Paul points to this when he writes, “And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ” (Eph 1:9).
God not only wills that we are united to him. He unites us to himself, overcoming the division our sin created between him and us. God overcomes this sin-wrought divide by the work of his Son. Jesus says of himself in his prayer to the Father, “you granted him authority over all people that he might give them eternal life” (John 17:2). Jesus not only reveals the Father’s will to us, but he also has the authority to freely grant us eternal life.
Furthermore, Jesus earned the eternal life he so freely and graciously gives to us. Paul writes that in Jesus, “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us in all wisdom and understanding” (Eph 1:7)
Jesus, by his death and resurrection, merited for us the forgiveness, life, and salvation we could not afford. As Martin Luther puts it in the explanation of the second article of the Apostles’ Creed in his Small Catechism, “I believe that Jesus Christ… has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death, that I may be his own and live under him in his kingdom.”
This forgiveness, life, and salvation are delivered to us through the proclamation of the gospel and the sacraments. As Paul attests, “you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph 1:13).
God not only unites us to himself by the death and resurrection of his Son; he unites us, the church, together and to himself under Christ as his children.
The faith by which we receive the forgiveness of sins and eternal life comes to us on the lips of another as they proclaim the good news of our salvation on account of Christ. This gospel was also poured out on our heads in the waters of baptism. God uses these waters combined with his word of promise to wash us clean from our sin and create faith in us by his Holy Spirit. In baptism, he unites us to himself by uniting us to the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, and makes us his children (Rom 6:3-8).
God not only unites us to himself by the death and resurrection of his Son; he unites us, the church, together and to himself under Christ as his children. Paul reminds the church in Ephesus that God purposed in Christ to “bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head” that is Christ (Eph 1:10).
Jesus speaks of this same bringing together in a different way when he speaks on eternal life in the gospel of John, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). When Jesus speaks of knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he sent, he speaks of more than head knowledge. He speaks of an intimate relationship.
Paul lays out the terms of this relationship “In love, [God] predestined us to be adopted” as his children through Jesus Christ (Eph 1:4-5). Through the redeeming blood of Christ, we are God’s children. As F.H. Knubel put it, “It was accomplished through his blood; we are children by adoption, but it is nevertheless a ‘blood’ relationship” (Church Unity, 17).
Paul points out another aspect of our relationship with God in a very subtle way in the opening verses of his letter. He writes, “grace and peace to you from God our Father” (Eph 1:2). Then he writes, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:3). Jesus’ Father is our Father.
This unites us, the church, together even further as we pray the opening words of the prayer Jesus taught us, “Our Father who art in heaven.” By giving us the words, “Our Father,” Jesus invites us to recognize anew the everyday reality and consequence of the faith that the Holy Spirit has called us into by the gospel: by the forgiveness of our sins, we are still God’s true children and siblings of his Son by whose sacrifice we were adopted. As such, we join Jesus in calling upon God as our Father, both his and ours, one and the same, together with all boldness and confidence as only Christ could. AMEN.